This past Memorial Day weekend here in the United States, a curious little movie called Brightburn came out. Directed by David Yarovesky and produced by James Gunn (the film was written by his brother Brian and cousin Mark), the film seems, judging from reviews, like a response of sorts to the more polarizing bits of 2013’s Man of Steel.
But where Zack Snyder and David Goyer’s film questioned if Superman should bother using his immense power for good, what Brightburn seems to propose is: What if, while still a kid, Superman decided it was better to just tear the whole world down?
Believe it or not, this is actually a quandary the Big Blue Boy Scout himself has come up against more than a few times. After all, it’s a natural question: If a perfect man comes from the sky and does only good, what would happen if he decided not to? And there’s plenty of examples in which you see various creative teams answer that question and a variety of responses pop up.
To begin with, there’s Red Kryptonite. Created by writer Otto Binder and artist George Papp in 1955, this rare varietal of the green stuff has done a lot of things: given him extra limbs, telepathy, even an ant’s head, but its most common effect is to create Evil Superman. Well, Smallville modified this by having it just make Clark an aggro jerk, but the point stands.
Then there’s the many diametrically opposed versions of Supes. From Brainiac in his many forms (Superman as dispassionate, utterly alien observer) to the many versions of General Zod (Superman as military strongman) to Bizarro’s … everything, a lot of Superman’s bad guys offer twisted reflections on his own character philosophy. But there’s something deeper here (and that’s without mentioning the legions of comic covers where Superman acts like a jerk).
What’s the appeal?
Red Kryptonite and Zod aside, there’s something deeper as to why we’re so drawn to the idea of an evil Kal-El. Is it because, in our world, even the most nobly-inspired who seek power almost inevitably get corrupted by it? Possibly.
Is it a reaction, deep in the global psyche, to the horrors of WWI and WWII where we saw entire countries railroaded out of blind devotion to one leader or another? Again, possibly.
Or maybe it’s because of an unconscious connection to the way Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster originally conceived of Superman in 1933. Like a lot of nerdy teens in the pre-Internet age, the young duo from Cleveland made their own SF fanzines. One of them, Science Fiction: The Advance Guard of Future Civilization, featured the team’s first use of the name Superman in the short story “The Reign of the Superman.”
In that story, a mad scientist picks a hapless schmoe out of a bread line and bribes him with food in exchange for testing an experimental potion. The potion grants the guy telepathic powers but also drives him to be a megalomaniac, leading to a downbeat ending that was rather common for the genre — this kind of pulp sci-fi turn would go on to influence the likes of The Twilight Zone.
As tempting as it is to think of the recurring trope of evil Superman as the world’s longest inside joke, it’s more clear-cut to say that we love stories of Superman gone bad for the same reason we like other What If? Stories. It’s fascinating to see just how far a character can be pushed outside of his established limits.
With that in mind, here are some of the best “Superman Goes Bad” stories out there.
Superman III (1983)
Superman III is really two different movies. The one half is a very weird caper where Richard Pryor (not allowed to be even remotely himself due to the film’s PG rating) plays a hapless computer programmer blackmailed by his employer into helping him cause all sorts of mayhem. The other half is a touching story of Clark going to his high school reunion and rekindling his romance with Lana Lang … and also getting presented with flawed Kryptonite that turns him evil. The synthetic rock eventually splits him in half, resulting in the movie’s best scene: a knock-out brawl between Superman’s good and bad halves. The fight is an astonishing bit of technical filmmaking on director Richard Lester’s part and a bravura showcase for Christopher Reeve.
JLA: Earth 2 (2000)
In the pre-Crisis On Infinite Earths history of the DC Universe, Earth-3 was home to the Crime Syndicate of America, where the tyrannical Ultraman led a bunch of evil Justice League doppelgangers in … well, crime.
Anyway, this 2000 graphic novel from Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely (published right after the end of Morrison’s legendary JLA run) introduced the Crime Syndicate of Amerika back into the DCU. Alexander Luthor ( a good version of Lex) crossed over from an antimatter universe where the Syndicate reigned supreme and got Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and the Flash to come back and help him change his world for the better.
With Quitely’s typical jaw-dropping work and Morrison on the “Superheroes as Their Archetypal Selves” kick that’s produced some of his best work, it’s no wonder WB Animation adapted this for the 2010 direct-to-video Justice League: Crisis On Two Earths.
Also, there’s a bit where Green Lantern saves people from a downed airplane by using his ring to make flying monkeys.
The brainchild of legendary writer Mark Waid (who was the company’s Editor-In-Chief and Chief Creative Officer at the time) and drawn mainly by Peter Krause, Irredeemable drew on Waid’s vast familiarity with Superman (besides his long stints at DC as a writer and in editorial, he’s also supposedly read every Superman story ever made) to tell of the Plutonian, who went from being Earth’s greatest hero to its greatest threat when he destroyed his home of Sky City, lobotomized his sidekick and sank Singapore into the ocean, among numerous other atrocities.
A compelling mystery that focused on the dark side of superhero spectacle, Irredeemable and its sister comic Incorruptible — which followed the Plutonian’s former arch-enemy, Max Damage, as he strove to atone and be a hero — were a sharp, Eisner-winning look at, in Waid’s words, the question of “how do you go from being Captain America to Doctor Doom?” A film adaptation by Adam McKay is in development but the comic is all collected now and well worth reading.
Superman: Red Son (2003)
Kick-Ass maestro Mark Millar tends to work best when he’s on a leash — if left to his own devices, he’ll come up with juvenile edgelord schtick like Wanted and Nemesis. But, when others are holding back his worst impulses, he produces some truly inspired stuff, like his Superman Adventures run, spinning off of the DCAU Superman, and this miniseries from 2003, one of the standouts in DC’s late, lamented Elseworlds line.
As the punny title makes clear, the concept of Red Son — written by Millar and drawn by Dave Johnson — is pretty ingeniously simple: Instead of landing in rural Kansas to be discovered by the Kents, baby Kal-El’s rocket arrives twelve hours earlier, thus landing on a collective farm in Soviet Ukraine. Brought directly to Stalin himself, Superman winds up shifting the focus of the Cold War from nukes to superhumans and eventually winds up taking the world towards a Soviet utopia.
With a Russian Batman, a militarily-aggressive Wonder Woman and the Green Lantern Marine Corps (a concept that’s surprisingly never been reused), in just three issues, this Eisner-winning series proves to be one of Millar’s finest hours and one of the best explorations of an “evil” Superman, that questions our very notions of good and evil.
Injustice: Gods Among Us/Injustice 2 (2013-2018)
You most likely know Injustice: Gods Among Us and its sequel as “those kick-ass fighting games that helped to make SonicFox famous.” But that’s not the full story. See, for a few years, DC Comics had an initiative where they were releasing a new weekly chapter of a digital-first comic on ComiXology every day (with print editions every month). The crown jewel in that lineup was the Injustice prequel comic.
Largely written by Tom Taylor (The Deep, All-New Wolverine) with art by scores of people, Injustice the comic told the full version of the story that’s depicted in the first game’s prologue. After the Joker tricks Superman into killing Lois Lane, Clark freaks out and murders the Clown Prince of Crime. Angered beyond all reason, he sets about bringing the world to heel, with a Batman-led resistance opposing him every step of the way.
While an admittedly goofy setup (because video game) and more than a few questionable moments, in the end, this comic proved itself way better than it had any right to be. Anyone who’s enjoyed Taylor’s other superhero work, like his new DC zombie comic DCeased, wouldn’t be remiss in checking this out.
Tom Speelman is the former manga/anime critic for the Eisner Award-winning Comics Alliance. He’s proofread and edited several books for Seven Seas Entertainment and other clients and can be found on Twitter @tomtificate, where he’s usually yelling about comics.